The Departed (film) – Review

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The Departed has stood the test of time. Released a decade ago, The Departed was an adaptation of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, but in Martin Scorsese’s hands the story became something much greater. Scorsese moved the setting to Boston, embedding it in the unique social and political culture of that city. In particular, The Departed is the most important film made so far about Whitey Bulger and the symbiotic relationship between organised crime and law enforcement which his career exposed.

The Departed was massive for the career of Leonardo DiCaprio, the role marking a major step forward from teen heartthrob to his status as arguably the world’s most important actor. His performance as undercover police agent Billy Costigan remains hugely compelling, with Costigan tormented by the guilt of the crimes he is complicit in, and in constant mortal terror of his psychopathic boss, the Bulger-esque Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). One of the fascinating things the film gets right is that the thoughtful, educated, reflective Costigan is not cut out for the police force; as Dignam, says, he’s smart enough to be an astronaut, but he’s not a cop. Meanwhile, Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan, who has been planted in the state police by Costello, is perfect cop material. Brash, selfish, and apparently uncaring, Sullivan has the perfect mentality for a police officer and the film charts his meteoric rise through the ranks.

The cast is stellar, and when you have a script as taut and exciting as this, it’s very easy to make everyone look good. Mark Wahlberg received rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for his entertaining performance in the relatively minor role of Sgt Dignam, while Nicholson, in probably his last great role, is extraordinary as Frank Costello. Costello is more than your typical charismatic psycho, his dialogue full of the kind of simple wisdom and criminal insight that helps lend the film a fundamental air of believability. Just as the story of Bulger’s career gives the film the necessary gravitas, so Nicholson’s own persona helps counteract the earnestness of Di Caprio’s performance, so that neither dominates the film completely.

The Departed is a film about Boston and a film about Irish America. A framing historical montage at the beginning of the film, narrated by Costello, covers the background of Boston’s race riots and Costello also explains his antagonism with the Sicilian Mafia in New Jersey. Most of the main characters identify as Irish and the film sympathetically portrays familiar Irish neuroses and personality types without straying into stereotype or pastiche. It’s characteristic of the film’s subtlety and depth that it is able to show characters with strong Irish pride as well as self-awareness of how their typically Irish failings affect or even control their behaviour. Curiously, it’s Damon’s emotionally stunted Colin Sullivan who offers the most explicit insights into Irish psychology. The film is also renowned for an inspired choice of music, with its use of a now-famous Dropkick Murphys track that is liable to get any Irish person’s blood pumping.

Vera Farmiga had a breakthrough role in The Departed as psychiatrist Madolyn Madden and, while she is now well-known via Bates Motel, for me this will always be her most memorable role. The scene where Costigan goes into meltdown during a therapy session with her is one of the best scenes ever. For many, DiCaprio should have had an Oscar for his role in this film, but he wasn’t even nominated for it (he was nominated for his admittedly impressive turn in Blood Diamond instead). Good job he finally got an Oscar this year so the injustice won’t keep people like me awake at night any more. But even apart from Billy Costigan, the film is full of iconic scenes and characters, benefiting from a great screenplay and one of the best casts ever assembled. The Departed is a truly special film.

10/10

 

 

Thanks, Nintendo

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When I left home at the age of 18 handheld games became very important to me. Video games have been part of my leisure time and part of how I’ve managed stress since early childhood; and when I was a student, frequently moving between low-quality accommodation and with very limited income, handheld gaming provided something of a lifeline. I spent a lot of time with the Game Boy Advance, an underrated device that had an amazing lineup of games; and the DS was pretty good too. Although I never really liked it as much as the GBA, the DS benefited from strong support from Nintendo and Japanese developers, as well as backwards compatibility.

Around 2009, I stopped playing handheld games, for two main reasons. The first was that by then I was working full-time and finally had the money, time and space to get a 360. The second was that the proliferation of smartphones and mobile gaming that started around then made me think that dedicated handheld consoles were finished, and that mobile phone gaming experiences were the future. So why bother with a Nintendo handheld?

How wrong I was. My smartphone gaming experiences since then have been risible, mainly consisting of a brief Angry Birds addiction around 2011 and a disappointing Warhammer RPG in 2013. I’ve been put off by the abysmal controls, low production values and terrible performance most mobile games seem to suffer from, as well as the sinister rise of freemium gaming. As a result I haven’t played any handheld games at all for the last couple of years.

So I’m delighted to have recently purchased a New Nintendo 3DS. The main inspiration was the release of a trio of new Fire Emblem games, which brought home the fact I never played the well-received Awakening. I love the Fire Emblem series and, 25 hours into my first Awakening playthrough, it’s thrilling to be able to return to it. The game features mature writing, humour, satisfying gameplay, and great polish and production values that you just don’t get with most mobile games. It’s more expensive, sure, but well worth it, particularly considering the insane replay value the series is known for. I’m absolutely loving it and looking forward to reviewing it and doing a character analysis on this blog.

It’s also been a pleasure to introduce my girlfriend to the Fire Emblem series, and I think she likes Awakening even more than I do. We’ve got a couple of Zelda games lined up, including Majora’s Mask, a birthday present from my brother. The console has an amazing back catalogue. As for the machine itself, it’s very nice. It’s compact, with a satisfying weight, and a pleasing appearance. The front and back panels are prone to blemishing but they can be replaced if we want. The stereoscopic display is an intriguing feature and a lot of fun. Overall that’s the best way to describe it–the 3DS feels like wholesome fun.

It turns out I still have my old DS Lite–untouched since about 2010–and my old copy of the original Fire Emblem on GBA; the only GBA game I still have. As well as firing that up for another playthrough we plan to get Chrono Trigger to play on the old DS. Chrono Trigger was never released in PAL territories when it came out for the SNES, and though I played Secret of Mana in the late ’90s, CT is a big gap in my gaming library. I’m very excited about playing it, and the DS version is supposed to be the best adaptation around. We’re also going to track down some old Advance Wars games as it doesn’t look like there will be a new one for the 3DS any time soon.

I realize now that in assuming dedicated gaming handhelds were finished, I fell victim to the kind of techno-faddishness I regularly decry when it’s applied to music or books. It’s a very good thing that Nintendo have continued to support high-quality handheld game experiences. I should have learned by now not to make sweeping assumptions about future technology markets, so I will just say that I hope Nintendo continue to do so, and handheld games like Fire Emblem continue to thrive; and that the growth of the toxic free-to-play industry, centered around exploiting gambling and addiction, doesn’t put paid to it all.

 

Tiptoes (film) – Review

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Tiptoes is a strange film. Seemingly it never had a cinematic release and went straight to video. My friend’s copy was originally a freebie with the Daily Mail (no, he doesn’t read the Daily Mail, he bought it on ebay). Featuring major actors like Matthew McConaughey, Kate Beckinsale, and Gary Oldman, and covering politically-correct subject matter, you can kind of see what they were aiming for, but the film is let down by a myriad of problems: particularly a dreadful script and some really weird pacing. The film provides a good deal of unintentional comedy, landing itself in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, but overall there’s less to like here than with the classics of that genre.

Released in 2003, Tiptoes is a film about dwarfs, set in contemporary America. The film has a sort of moralizing, patronizing tone that suggests the filmmakers thought the general public could use some sensitivity training. McConaughey plays a character called Steven, who is the one ‘normal’ person in a family of ‘little people’. Steven has concealed his background from his fiancee Carol, played by Beckinsale, and an unplanned pregnancy provides the main plot point of the film. See, although Steven is not a dwarf there is a 50/50 chance their child will be, and the plot revolves around how the couple deal with that. Steven has a twin brother, Rolfe (Oldman), who is a dwarf and who, if we’re generous to him, becomes a shoulder to cry on for Carol as Steven’s emotional issues start to get the better of him. Another way of looking at it would be that Rolfe exploits some emotionally vulnerable and guilt-ridden people to try and get inside Carol’s pants.

The trailer plays up Oldman’s turn as a dwarf as ‘the role of a lifetime’ and in a way it is, though not in the way they intended. He wears some prosthetics on his face and a hump on his back and spends the film shuffling around on his knees trying to pass as a dwarf. The bizarre thing is that the film is full of actual dwarf actors, so why they gave the main dwarf role to a non-dwarf actor is a bit of a mystery. The film even has Peter Dinklage, playing a boorish, pseudo-Marxist misogynist, who for some reason is French; he has some connection to Rolfe which is never explained. Dinklage’s character is sleeping with a sort of airhead hippy played by Patricia Arquette. This character feels like she’s supposed to be about 20, but Arquette looks at least twice that age here, and is not helped by the really awful clothes they make her wear. Her character is incensed at one point when a motel owner takes her for a prostitute, but that is indeed what she looks like.

Arquette’s wardrobe is nothing compared to Beckinsale’s, though. She wears some truly shocking pieces of late 90s fashion, including wearing pyjamas in public and a gruesome sort of blouse/camo pants combination, as well as a backless dress and dog collar to a formal dinner with her parents. Jesus Christ. I never realized before this film just how bad an actress Beckinsale is, though some of it may be due to exasperation over the script. What are you supposed to do with lines like “So you had a circle jerk with a bunch of little people? I would love to see that!” Other gems include Arquette proclaiming that the sphincter is the strongest muscle in the body. The day I see people exercising their sphincters at the gym is the day I stop going.

Tiptoes was made before McConaughey’s reinvention as a serious actor, but even so he does what he can, and aside from one godawful bit of dancing he probably emerges with the most credit here. The film suffers from odd pacing and editing and features one of the most abrupt and jarring endings I’ve ever seen.

This is the trailer that inspired us to check the film out. If you’re a fan of bad movies and cinematic curiosities, Tiptoes is worth checking out.

2/10 (bad movie rating 7/10)

Bates Motel (season three) – Review

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Bates Motel is good fun. It’s not going to win any prizes when compared to the finest television drama, but the show is consistently entertaining and the third season exceeded my expectations. In the first two seasons the main plot moved forward quite slowly, but in the third we start to see more and more of the, er, character quirks for which Norman Bates is famous. During earlier episodes it felt at times as if the writers weren’t quite sure where your sympathies were supposed to lie, but by the end of the third season you really do start to feel sorry for everyone who isn’t Norman.

Freddy Highmore is very good as the young Norman Bates, at turns frightening and pathetic. A couple of scenes where he is inhabiting his alter ego are quite entertaining, though obviously disturbing, and he seems like he had a lot of fun doing them. As far as Norma goes, well: ever since The Departed came out I have had a major crush on Vera Farmiga so seeing her in a drama like this, even as the troubled Norma Bates, is a treat. To be fair to the character, Norma actually comes across as more sympathetic in this season, and her manic episodes are fewer; though her behaviour at times is still very destructive and manipulative. On the whole she mainly comes across as a tragic, emotionally broken woman trying to look after her deranged son while contending with her own deep-seated problems. The show has diverged massively from the original film, now, in portraying Norma as such a sympathetic character; but it would have been hard to sustain it for so long otherwise, so I can understand. Also, considering modern sensibilities people might be less inclined to tolerate a Norma Bates as she was depicted in Hitchcock’s film.

I don’t generally like to go on about actors, but with Bates Motel you have to acknowledge that the supporting cast is tremendous. Max Thieriot, Olivia Cooke and Nestor Carbonell are all great to watch, and it’s nice to see some old Sons of Anarchy favourites make an appearance in Kenny Johnson and Ryan Hurst. Some of the writing is impressive, too, and I particularly liked the way they handled a reconciliation of sorts between Norma and a hated figure from her past. It felt like the writers were trying to deal with a complex issue in a non-judgmental and mature way and that’s always refreshing. In a show like this there must be a big temptation to focus on the more lurid aspects of the story and it’s to their credit that they generally rise above that.

The Oregon setting is well-chosen and certain aspects of this season lend it a sort of Twin Peaks-esque feel. The central story here is about Norman and Norma but there is something deeply wrong about the town of White Pine Bay, and each season keeps peeling away at the corruption and deceit that encases the town. With the show having been renewed through to season five, it will be interesting to see what other secrets will be revealed.

8/10

Mad Men (season one) – Review

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I was shocked to discover that Mad Men started almost ten years ago, back in 2007. We’re only starting it now, but I remember when it began and it seems like yesterday. Damn.

Mad Men is a drama about the advertising business, specifically Madison Avenue, the famous centre of advertising in Manhattan. The main character is the notoriously slick, handsome and charming advertising executive, Don Draper. In its heyday around 2009 the show was talked about as the epitome of cool and style, and there is a definite appeal to its early 60s aesthetic. It doesn’t hurt when your main characters are played by people like Joe Hamm, Christina Hendricks and January Jones, either. The cast is definitely one of the programme’s strong points and helps to sustain interest which might otherwise start to wane.

There’s no denying that a show about the advertising industry has less intrinsic appeal to me than most of the other kinds of dramas I watch. Particularly in the first few episodes there isn’t a great deal of plot and story to get your teeth into, although by the end of the season the level of human drama improves. The main characters all have big holes in their lives (these are advertising people after all) and their emotional pain starts to have serious consequences.

Several episodes have interesting sections where Don Draper goes into a sort of trance and gives an inspirational speech about whatever product his company, Sterling Cooper, is hawking. While these segments can be thought-provoking, Don’s transcendental delivery will surely prove ripe for parody if over-used, so I hope they don’t rely too heavily on this in future seasons. The odd, quasi-mystical air of the first season is also contributed to by Don’s boss, Bertram Cooper. Cooper is “quirky” and has embraced Eastern philosophy as seen by the Japanese art in his office and the fact he makes people take off their shoes before entering. He’s also a major fan of Ayn Rand, and keeps referencing her as the season goes on. As I mentioned in my review of Bioshock: Infinite, I resent Rand’s shallow, cynical, anti-social philosophy, and it’s tiresome to me to see it wheeled out here as something visionary. That said, it’s just the sort of ideology that would suit a senior advertising executive, so fair enough I suppose.

Mad Men depicts the sexism of the early 60s office environment in such an unflinching way that it can be difficult to watch, and I found the first episodes excruciating at times. Some of the worst elements of the rampant misogyny of the time are thankfully toned down after a while but gender roles and expectations are a major theme throughout the series. Sexism is almost as prominent in Mad Men as smoking. This can partly be excused due to the time period, but scarcely a scene goes by without at least one character lighting up. For anyone trying not to smoke (surely most people watching), it can become something of an ordeal. There’s also a massive amount of drinking on display here, and generally any kind of self-destructive, impulsive behaviour you can imagine.

So, Mad Men’s first season is a reasonably entertaining and engrossing experience, helped by a terrific cast who get the most out of some pretty thin material. But it doesn’t really live up to the hype. Moreover, as befits a show about advertising, it doesn’t feel that wholesome, and like smoking a packet of cigarettes or eating a bag of doughnuts, I’m not really sure that watching it is worth what it might cost you.

8/10

Further Down the Spiral

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

The collapse of Arsenal’s season continued last weekend when they were dumped out of the FA Cup in the quarter final by Watford, losing at home by two goals to one. Arsenal had won the FA Cup for the last two seasons but this latest result did not come as much of a surprise. Arsenal have been in a downward spiral for some time now and the 4-0 defeat of lower division Hull last weekend was a mere blip in the overall trend.

Calls for manager Arsene Wenger to step aside are now widespread among an increasingly divided Arsenal fanbase. Wenger is probably Arsenal’s greatest ever manager and it is sad, if not downright tragic, to see his status brought to this level. The problem is, it is his own fault. Arsene has had plenty of opportunities to leave before now and he chose not to. Moreover, this under-performing band of players were all chosen by him and he must be held accountable for their lack of performance. Who signed Theo Walcott to a contract of £140,000 per week? Who signed players like David Ospina and the two Mathieus, Debuchy and Flamini? Who kept playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain week after week when he was costing the side two goals a game? Who kept Kieran Gibbs around for years after he should have been sold off? Who thought Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky could be relied on to provide cover for our only two competent and fit central midfielders? The buck stops with Wenger and week after week we are seeing Arsenal imploding before our eyes.

The first time I thought Wenger should leave Arsenal was after the 8-2 stuffing by Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2011. Having grown up with Arsenal’s rivalry with United during the glory years of Wenger’s reign, and feeling nothing short of hatred for Ferguson’s United, the scale of that humiliation was like nothing else I’ve endured as an Arsenal fan. People point out that Arsenal were undone then by the financial pressures of moving stadium, of losing key players, etc., but the team should have been better prepared for that game and the whole club owes it to the fans not to let that sort of thing happen.It was a disgrace.

I briefly changed my mind when Wenger seemed to turn things round when he dropped Thomas Vermaelen in early 2013, reorganized the team and followed that up with the record signing of Mesut Ozil that summer. Arsenal then went on an Ozil and Ramsey-inspired rampage early in the 2013-14 season. However the wheels came flying off again after a 5-1 mauling by Liverpool, followed by a 6-0 humiliation by Chelsea in Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. The latter was particularly galling due to the symbolism of the occasion. Arsenal’s unbelievable frailty against top-quality opposition was in large part facilitated by the absence of a defensive midfielder. Arsenal were supposed to be on a title charge and in the January transfer window Wenger signed one player on loan, the midfielder Kim Kallstrom who had injured vertebrae in his back. Every single football fan on the planet had been going on for years about Arsenal’s obvious need for a defensive midfielder. At the time Arsenal were playing Mikel Arteta in the role, a player who made his name as a number 10 for Everton. Whatever Arteta’s strengths, as a DM he was massively exposed against the best teams–particularly against Chelsea when Wenger made the staggering decision to partner him with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in central midfield. They say the owl of Minerva flies at desk but even at the time partnering those two in the middle was utter madness.

Once again, Arsenal were disintegrating but somehow clawed their way into the FA Cup Final. Wenger has said winning that game helped persuade him to sign a new contract, when in fact it may well have been best to leave on a high. Having decided to stay, Arsenal were presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to win the league this season. Instead, they’ve played probably the worst football I’ve ever seen from one of Wenger’s Arsenal sides. The team has no discernible style or identity and seems to be characterised by a lack of personal responsibility on the pitch, whether it is in possession or in defense. It’s clear from the abysmal finishing, from the lack of movement from players who don’t seem to want the ball, and from the continuous defensive errors and mix-ups. Moreover, in the absence of people like Tomas Rosicky or Jack Wilshere, it doesn’t really feel like an ‘Arsenal’ team at all. Pretty much every player there I can picture playing for someone else, and I wouldn’t really care if we sold them–so long as we replaced them with someone of comparable or better quality. That includes Ozil and Alexis. I’ve never, ever felt so little emotional investment in an Arsenal side, even in the dog days of George Graham’s reign. At least then we had Ian Wright.

It’s all the more infuriating because there is absolutely no reason why Arsenal shouldn’t be winning the league this year. They already have the players for it. They’re also one of the richest clubs in the world and could sign practically any player they wanted–and if we’re honest, Arsenal are short at least a couple of world-class players if they hope to win the Champions League. The only players in the world who could not be bought for any price are Messi and Neymar, and maybe Thomas Muller. Arsenal could buy pretty much anyone else. I’m not saying they should buy Ronaldo or Ibrahimovich, although they could if they wanted to, but the likes of James Rodriguez, Isco or Mario Gotze would be great signings who would not only raise Arsenal’s chances in the league but actually make them realistic contenders in Europe too.

That won’t happen while Wenger’s in charge, of course, and probably won’t happen while Stan Kroenke is majority shareholder. But one of the things I’ve realized this season is that the Premier League is full of managers who are doing a better job than Wenger. Next season there will be at least five managers who I would take over Wenger, plus Mourinho. People go on about what happened at United after Ferguson retired, but Arsenal at the moment are playing as badly as they did under Moyes, and almost as badly as they’re playing now under Van Gaal. Arsenal and Arsene are not the same thing. It’s time the club rediscovered its identity and started to inspire people again.

Wenger has turned things around before, of course, but the entire aura around the team, around him, and around the club feels different this time. With a trip to Barcelona on the cards tonight followed by a visit to Everton on Saturday, all the evidence suggests things are going to get worse before they get better.

Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition (PS4) – Review

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Divinity: Original Sin is a game which outstays its welcome. As I made clear in my First Impressions post a few months ago, this was a game we enjoyed enormously at first. The game’s first section, Cyseal, is well-designed, full of interesting quests and with an overarching murder mystery that is quite fun to investigate. The game’s combat starts off strongly and that, at least, remains enjoyable throughout the game. But once you reach the end of the game’s lengthy first chapter, the quality of the experience goes downhill, and continues to do so for its 70-80 hour playtime. The developers had some good ideas but they seemed to pour all of them into the first section, and the remainder of the game is by comparison creatively barren, boring, aimless and frustrating.

D:OS comes to PS4 in the form of the Enhanced Edition, and it is a very long game. The problem is, the game’s story is nowhere near good enough to sustain 80 hours of playtime. The plot revolves around stopping a scheme to bring back the legendary Void Dragon which will destroy time and space and all existence. That’s just what it does. There are a couple of malevolent agents working to bring this about, but their motivations never get beyond quasi-teenage moaning about how pain and suffering would be obliterated if there was no life. It’s made significantly worse by the fact that your primary antagonist for most of the game was driven to embrace this worldview because she was jilted in a love triangle. It’s pathetic. The game tries to make the story sound more grandiose by endless infantile phrasemongering about forces “utterly beyond time and space”, but it’s sterile, cliched and uninteresting.

The turn-based combat system is the best thing about the experience and it’s a shame and a little odd that the further you get the more trivial combat becomes. The game’s hardest fights all seem to be loaded at the front of the game and the later ones, even the boss fights, get easier and easier. Instead, to provide a form of difficulty the game throws an endless succession of maddening puzzles at you designed to slow your progress. T. and I spent entire multi-hour sessions towards the end of our playthrough not doing any fights but backtracking endlessly to find bits and pieces needed for inane main-story quests. Completing this game was a massive chore and we felt nothing but relief by the time we finished it. The Playstation Network allows you to see the global achievement rate of your trophies in relation to other people who have started your game. Only 2% of people who started this game finished it. I compared this to other games and most of them seemed to be 20-40%; even Tales of Graces F had a 30% completion rate. Jesus, even Final Fantasy X-2, which is now an excruciating, dated experience, has a 10% completion rate on PS3, ie, five times greater than this. The circle-jerk around this game within the RPG community is just embarrassing.

The thing is, if this was a 40-hour game rather than being twice as long, I can see how those scores of 9/10 or even higher could be justified. I keep repeating it, but combat is great, especially in co-op where you plan your tactics together and make extensive use of the environment and status effects. Our party included two warriors (I like warriors!), an ice mage, and a rogue. We would have loved to try other classes as well, but having completed it hell will freeze over before we try another playthrough. I cannot abide a game which constantly throws invisible instant death puzzles at you, meaning a step in the wrong direction can result in a game over for your whole team; and where you have to look up online constantly–I mean constantly–how to proceed. Oh, and the resurrection spell is locked away at the top of one class’ skill tree, meaning we unlocked it about 70 hours in. You can buy consumable resurrection scrolls but they can be hard to find and in the early game the cost is prohibitive.

There’s one mandatory puzzle late in the game where you need to have near-maximum Perception to see some invisible footsteps in order to get through an area without being killed instantly. If you step off the footsteps, you die. Thing is, you don’t really need Peception for anything else in the game, except this, so of course we hadn’t levelled it sufficiently. The only way we could get through it was by watching a video on Youtube and going between the living room and the spare room to make sure I was going in the right direction. Sound like fun to you? This is like the worst negative stereotype of video games I have played in years.

The voice acting of the main characters is fine, but I should mention that the secondary and peripheral characters can be really, really annoying. It’s like they were trying to do “funny” voices on a lot of people, but the inherent difficulty in doing that well, combined with incessant looping of two or three lines, will have you reaching for the mute button with depressing regularity. The music is fairly good, compared to many aspects of the game, but it’s not deserving of the hyperbolic praise it has received from the game’s rabid fans; and, for me, a couple of the tracks strongly brought to mind themes from movies like the Godfather and Terminator.

I accept that some people really love this game and there is a niche market for this kind of experience. However, this should not be passed off as anything approaching a mainstream game. If you get off on the unfair “hardcore” mechanics of a game like this, great. I’m just glad to have finished it so I can get back to things like Fallout, Witcher, Fire Emblem, and Tales of Zestiria. As well as, you know, life, which tends to be frustrating and difficult enough anyway without having to endure games like this.

6/10